When that crazy thing happened in the first episode of House of Cards, you could almost hear the audible gasp echo across America. You could almost see red Netflix screens automatically loading the next episode, without a pause. By the end of Presidents' Day weekend — when Netflix released its entire second season of House of Cards — most fans had watched all 13 episodes of the Kevin Spacey-led series. And, by St. Patrick's Day, most people had stopped talking about the show. But the end of House of Cards did not mean the end of "binge-watching." No, thanks to the future releases of Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Orange is The New Black (Obama is already binge-watching the George R. R. Martin adaptation), the phrase that has crept into our vernacular will continue to have astounding staying power, for better or for worse.
I say for worse.
Because labeling the practice of eagerly consuming your favorite TV series in one sitting “binge-watching” makes light of the very serious condition from which the term is derived. Take this photo of January Jones as Betty Francis (formerly Draper), posted to the official Mad Men Facebook page:
An interesting advertising attempt, but an undeniably touchy one, especially if you've been following the show. After all, one of Mad Men's recent storylines centered on Betty’s fluctuating weight following her divorce from Don Draper. In Season 5, we saw how emotional instability and boredom led her into the fridge late at night, to her children’s unfinished portions, and to the couch, where she sat, depressed and eating. In other words, Betty had a binge-eating disorder.
Though Betty has since shed the pounds, our association with her as a binge-eater remains, which is why the image is provocative. It is also upsetting — no one on the creative end of TV production had made the connection between disordered eating and television watching so apparent before. And though it's easy to speculate over the physiological effects of indulging in mass quantities of episodes at a time, there is no evidence that one's physical health suffers from “binge-watching.” The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for eating disorders.
I’d take less of an issue with the term if “binge-watch” weren't so ubiquitous. It's caught on so much in the last year, most major mainstream outlets have published trend-watching essays on binge-watching, with some embracing the practice and others questioning it. The Atlantic, for one, recently defined "binge-watch" as follows:
binge-watch: (v) to watch at least four episodes of a television program, typically a drama, in one sitting (bathroom breaks and quick kitchen snack runs excepted) through an on-demand service or DVDs, often at the expense of other perceived responsibilities in a way that can cause guilt.
The definition is basic enough, but simply the fact that The Atlantic is defining it at all points to the cultural momentum of “binge-watch.” The New York Times took on the term in a predictably fussy Grey Lady kind of way, with humorist Joyce Wadler struggling to transpose the cult of watching sprees into something the middle-aged can understand:
It’s the party you were invited to but were too lazy to leave the neighborhood to go to, and later you learn Bruce Springsteen attended because the host coached his child’s soccer team. It’s the ability to pick up on something you were too lame to notice the first time around.
Soccer and Bruce Springsteen aside, Wadler does pick up on the element of peer pressure in binge-watching. We binge to feel included, not just in the shows, but in the practice of binging. The phrase is so omnipresent that “binge-watch, v.” almost edged out “selfie, n.” for 2013 Oxford Dictionaries word of the year.
I understand the desire to grab hold of this zeitgeist-y practice and assign it meaning. But maybe we ought to think about the language behind "binge-watching" itself, and its potential to do harm to our collective self-esteem. Certainly, "binge-watching" as a practice is not nearly as physically dangerous as binge-eating or binge-drinking, but could the term itself harm our mental well-being?
In an article published in August of last year, entitled "Why Everything You Know About Binge-Watching is Wrong," Variety suggested there are nuances in the kind of viewing that falls under the blanket of “binge." The article uses words like “splurge,” “gorge,” and “marathon” to differentiate the shades of overconsumption. None quite fit. “Marathon" swings too much in the opposite direction of "binge." Though TV-watching is not a disease, it’s not an accomplishment either. “Splurge” sounds like a yoga mom eating a gourmet cupcake. "Binge" is so catchy because it touches a particular nerve, but perhaps the best descriptor for the way we watch TV now ought to be something more mundane, more neutral, more forgiving, and less tied up in gut-wrenching guilt.
If we establish that "binge-watching" is not harmful in itself, we may begin to see the way we have let the term seep into our vocabulary without thinking critically about its background, tone, and connotations. If it sounds like hermeneutics, that’s because it is. As conversations around the way we watch TV become more frequent, the language we choose to use is essential to understanding how we see ourselves. If I weren’t constantly reading about binge-watching or hearing about it among friends and strangers on public transportation, it would never occur to me to make excuses for watching House of Cards or feel shame about catching up on True Detective. I would not feel compelled to describe an activity I enjoy using language steeped in self-loathing.
If we continue to view ourselves in this way, we may not be able to ever build healthy TV-watching habits. We are just beginning to unlock the potential of the Golden Age of Television, and as the quality of television continues to increase, spending hours watching will be no different from spending hours on the couch reading a book – which is, by my account, a leisurely, indulgent, sedentary activity. Netflix and on-demand services have simply managed to tap into our desire to enjoy leisure time when we can, in large chunks. The way we watch now is not extreme or perilous, but it is an opportunity. As our relationship with TV from evolves from once-weekly episodes to several-episode blocks, we may have to re-identify ourselves as TV watchers. If we stop calling ourselves “bingers,” we can do so with our self-respect intact.